Don't Smile for the Camera

War and politics have taken a grim toll in John Kerry's Camelot. Are we really ready for the Brooder in Chief?

IF YOU WANT to see dour, long-jawed John Kerry in the most flattering light, look no further than his pal George Butler's soft-cover coffee-table book, John Kerry: A Portrait (Bulfinch, $19.95), not so coincidentally published in tandem with Butler's Swift-boat documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. The photo collection, like Kerry's entire political career, is bookended by unpopular wars that Kerry has called mistakes. Butler's short intro relates how he met the future war hero and politician in 1964, immediately responding to "a real presence that I could feel, and a will that I would grow to appreciate." Presidential timber, sure, but Butler also qualifies that he and Kerry were both "Brahmins with a catch," the sons of fathers who'd married into old money, not full-blooded aristocrats, which gave them both some extra drive. After Vietnam, during his botched 1972 congressional campaign, Kerry hired Butler as a media manager and photographer; their lens friendship continued through the decades, and Butler tagged along during the senator's dark days of 2003 before the Iowa caucus. In these 115 black-and-white and 15 color plates, one sees a man, and a photographer, rooted in an earlier, Camelot-era sensibility of noblesse oblige, beach-fire poetry, and golden retrievers. Problem is, this JFK has none of the sunniness or sex appeal of the original. He's leagues behind Reagan, Clinton, or George W. Bush in telegenic charm, an impression that this book inadvertently supports. Kerry only smiles awkwardly at his public functions; from '72 to '04, he has that presidential timber tucked snugly up his ass. He's handsome, yet still somewhat freakishly thyroid-elongated as a 29-year-old candidate in way over his head. He's even craggier as a senator. By 2003, Butler says, "I could barely look through my Leica, so ravaged and tired was the face I saw in my viewfinder." Never mind Vietnam and those Purple Hearts, politics is what has inflicted the real injuries on Kerry. Unlike Dubya's ascent from carefree, party-hearty youth, Kerry passed from the national spotlight as a dead-serious antiwar protester into 10 years of political obscurity before getting a second life as, ahem, Michael Dukakis' lieutenant governor. Talk about depressing; his career was seemingly over before Bush's had even begun. Reading between the carefully selected images, one also senses how life itself has battered the former golden boy in unexpected ways. There are candid, tender shots of him with his first wife, Julia Thorne, then she vanishes from the record. (They separated in '82, before his Senate run.) Kerry appears perhaps most relaxed when minding his two daughters in some 1980s candids, temporarily relieved from the rules of parliamentary speech. All Butler's frankly admiring behind-the-scenes portraits of Kerry in the early '70s reveal a profoundly earnest but haunted young man; he may have gone to Vietnam to bolster his résumé, but it came back written in blood. They say Americans only vote for optimists, but I'm not so sure that's what America needs right now. What is there to be optimistic about in Iraq or with the economy? Bush may still smile more readily, but Butler's book shows the virtue of a man whose gravitas is at least genuine. bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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